Decolonising Fashion Through Wearable Art With Maschiaccio

Decolonising Fashion Through Wearable Art With Maschiaccio

The genderless label is rejecting systems of control and embracing art on our own terms. This is the story of designer Sana Bhatia's Maschiaccio.

Zeus takes centrestage, staring down from the chest of a sheer crepe dress, lamenting the sight unfolding before him. Delicate hand-painted cherubs bear witness to the moment when a knife is driven through Julius Caesar's chest, on a canvas of vegan leather.

Such is the gripping drama of the latest Ides of March collection by Maschiaccio.

The genderfluid label is the brainchild of designer Sana Bhatia, and is centred around storytelling through wearable art. Each collection draws on historical figures of strength and intrigue from around the world, utilising minimal, feminine silhouettes with maximalist, evocative prints that offer a sense of balance to each garment.

At the core of the brand is the drive to decolonise fashion- one which Bhatia holds close to her heart. Refusing to put her designs into gendered boxes, she emphasises the importance of acknowledging and honouring our queer ancestry and the practice of cross-dressing which was erased from our history.

“Before colonialisation queer people were revered in the community as healers, artisans, poets, artists, mediators, doorway to the spiritual world. Deities were multidimensional and fluid. Maschiaccio was inspired by the theme of cross dressing. It wasn’t just created to be a business but also a community where everyone feels welcome and is free of all stereotypes. Maschiaccio aims to decolonize the mindset of societies and reintroduce the concept of Kama - the pursuit of passion, pleasures, aesthetics, and artistic thinking for a fulfilling and balanced life.”

Sana Bhatia

Clothing can and should serve as a vehicle for deeper inquiries into gender debates, and even the brand name here reflects that. Maschiaccio means ‘tomboy’ in Italian, and it’s meant to be a diss aimed at people who use this term disparagingly.

“The idea of Maschiaccio came about whilst listening to the stories of my freedom fighter great-grandmother who used to wear Netaji style collar kurta with pockets that only men wore, and salwar with naadha, where she kept her money. Instead of a bra she used to wear vests usually worn by men. People in Bannu (in present-day Pakistan) had never seen a woman dress up like that.”

Sana Bhatia

As a SCAD graduate, Bhatia conceptualised Maschiaccio in Savannah, Georgia in December 2019. Over the past year, the studio has shifted to Kanpur.

As a brand with a global appeal and a distinctively Indian origin story, Maschiaccio is committed to resisting oppressive systems, especially in the current socio-political hellscape that is our country.

“Our education system is being taught from a very fascist and sexist gaze, our identities are being attacked and a telescopic view of nationalism is being peddled in India. I thought there was no better time to launch Maschiaccio than now. We want to try and break the gender norms perpetuated by these institutions.”

Sana Bhatia

All of her collections are unified by this common principle, and while her designs are eclectic, she is drawn towards one particular art movement. “I really gravitate towards Early Netherlandish school, categorised as belonging to Late Gothic and Early Renaissance. It is known for sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, diptychs, triptychs, polyptychs, stained glass and carved retables. One artwork of the era that really fascinates me is Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights because of its idiosyncratic nature, along with the mystery surrounding its creation, and its possible intention to convey heretical or occult meaning while using fantasy as a didactic tool.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch via Artsy

Bhatia’s fascination with visual allegory is apparent in the Ides of March collection, which translates the tragic sentiment of “Et tu, Brute?” onto clothes, through the eyes of Classical figures. “It showcases the relationships between rivals, triumph over romanticized notions of subjugation, war and death. It is inspired by the Baroque period and the elements used during the era such as social satire, flights of fantasy, revolutionary idealism and royal portraiture,” she explains.

In fact, each collection has an inbuilt multiverse in itself. Take for instance the Qui Jin Collection, which presents oversized Chinese-inspired silhouettes, a lush Chinoiserie set and more. It is named after Qui Jin, a Chinese revolutionary, feminist, and writer. On the other hand, the Montagu Collection is an interpretation of Lady Mary Montagu’s travel to the Ottoman Empire, as wife to the British ambassador to Turkey. It showcases the similarities between a mosque and a cathedral, and is all about different textile manipulations, with an elevated interplay of textures and modern silhouettes.

Employing a range of techniques, the artworks are digitally printed, screen printed, hand-painted on fabric, hand block printed, dobby woven, and jacquard woven on handloom.

Images of predominantly white people, from the Baroque-inspired paintings of Ides of March, clothing brown bodies makes a powerful statement. Bhatia agrees that it opens up the conversation of using clothing as a stimulus. Exploring the relationship between clothing, the body and one’s self, Maschiaccio is her way of diverting from the dichotomy of oppressor vs oppressed.

Perhaps the biggest feat of wearable art is that it takes art off the exclusive walls of museums and galleries, and allows more people to interact with them in a whole new way.

“Unfortunately most of the museums and art galleries still cater to a certain section of the population and adhere to specific commercial and political systems instead of democratizing it. This approach to art, just like Classical paintings, reflects that some things should be considered superior to others, and creates a world only accessible to limited people because of aesthetic purpose and expressive qualities. This brings about the huge debate between classical art vs contemporary art. Wearable art brings that culture to the street, ultimately commenting that art is for all.”

Sana Bhatia

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